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Humor in the Workplace

The following article, written by Randy Erickson, appeared in the May, 1995 issue of Commerce Now.

'Mirth missionary tells companies to lighten up - it's good for business!

Dr. Humor Except for April Fool's Day and the usual jokes exchanged with colleagues, business people tend to take things pretty seriously, maybe too seriously. In fact, companies are increasingly recognizing that business success can (and should) be a laughing matter.

The list of companies that have tried to incorporate more humor into the workplace continues to grow; it includes such corporate giants as General Electric, AT&T, Kodak, Lockheed and IBM. Even the Internal Revenue Service has taken steps to inject laughter into the workplace.

Corporations often turn to humor consultants to help them lighten up. One of the most high-profile consultants, John Cleese of Monty Python fame, made $1 million last year helping businesses find their funny bones, a sure sign that corporate culture is serious about having a few more laughs.

Help for the 'Humor-Impaired'
It is by now common knowledge that health studies bear out the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. A good belly laugh will lower the blood pressure below normal resting rates for 45 minutes and laughing exercises the lungs, increases oxygen in the bloodstream and stimulates production of endorphins, the brain's built-in painkiller.

Laughter is good for the health of a business, too, according to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor Stu Robertshaw, also known as 'Dr. Humor,' and there have been at least a few studies that bear this out. Robertshaw noted that one corporate study showed that after a trial period during which humor was incorporated into the workplace in a variety of ways—including everything from a special humor bulletin board to silly hat days—the company experienced a 21 percent decrease in staff turnover and a 38 percent decrease in Friday absenteeism.

Robertshaw is a sort of humor consultant himself, or a mirth missionary, if you will. A special education professor (with a law degree), he was editing a textbook about eight years ago when he was struck by an astounding fact; preschool children laugh or smile 400 times a day, but that figure drops to an average of only 15 laughs a day by the time people reach age 35.

This alarming lack of laughter in adult lives moved Robertshaw to spend three years studying humor in his spare time. As a result of that study he decided to form the National Association for the Humor Impaired in 1990, and he hit the road speaking about the importance of humor. His audiences have included groups ranging from Rotarians, the Maine School Attorneys Association and 3M to the International Embalmers Association, the CIA and Martin Marietta Corp.

Before you buy that joke book...
The benefits of laughter at work are much the same as laughter anywhere else. Basically, laughing makes you feel good and it reduces stress. Doesn't it make sense to let more laughter into the workplace, the source of a lot of people's stress? In addition to stress relief, a little comic relief in the workplace can help build camaraderie. Creating and sharing inside jokes helps co-workers feel closer to one another, enhancing teamwork through a sense of common history.

And it is increasingly considered essential for managers to have a sense of humor, noted in an article in Nation's Business as one of the seven qualities of a "great boss."

"One of the characteristics of effective leaders is the ability to laugh at themselves. If you can't laugh at yourself, people view you as critical," says Robertshaw.

Having a sense of humor has more to do with being able to see that there are funny situations all around us and feeling secure enough to laugh at them than it does with entertaining others. "Sometimes people confuse the notion of a sense of humor with the ability to tell a joke," Robertshaw says. "We're all humor participants."

One big rule of thumb for humor in the workplace (or anywhere) is to know your audience and make sure that your jocularity won't be seen as offensive, either because it is "dirty" or because it makes certain groups of people the butt of the joke. "There's wonderful clean humor out there," Robertshaw says. "If a joke is potentially offensive to anybody, pull it."

Robertshaw has an unending source of humor with all the funny stories and letters he gets from members of his National Association for the Humor Impaired (there are almost 3,200 members). In fact, he has published a collection of about 150 of the letters in a book, Dear Dr. Humor. (He says his next book will be called The Complete Book of Malaprops, Volume 1.)

Robertshaw's book includes the following story which you could circulate around the office or shop as a first step toward incorporating more humor in the workplace:

    Dear Dr. Humor:
    When my granddaughter, Ann, was 9 years old, she was given an assignment by her teacher to write a story on "where my family came from." The purpose was supposed to be to understand your genealogy.

    I was not aware of her assignment when she asked me at the dining room table one night, "Grandma, where did I come from?"

    I responded, quite nervously because my son and daughter-in-law were out of town and I was stalling until they returned home, "Well, honey, the stork brought you."

    "Where did Mom come from then?"

    "The stork brought her, too."

    "OK, then where did you come from?"

    "The stork brought me too, dear."

    "OK, thanks, Grandma."

    I did not think anything more about it until two days later when I was cleaning Ann's room and read the first sentence of her paper: "For three generations there have been no natural births in our family."

Commerce Now, May 1995

If you would like further information about Dr. Humor's public speaking, please email him at drhumor@aol.com.


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